Thursday, March 29, 2012

Review - The Wellsprings of Life by Isaac Asimov

Short review: The basics of biology as explained by Asimov.

If you want to learn
Some basic biology
This is a good start

Full review: Asimov is most famous as a science fiction author, with good reason as he contributed some of the classic works of the genre: Foundation, The Caves of Steel and others. However, Asimov was probably a better science writer than science fiction writer. His straightforward and simple style translates better to conveying useful information than it does to creating eloquent fictional prose.

The Wellsprings of Life is a basic guide to biology and evolution. There isn't really anything here that one would not learn in a well-run high school biology class, there wasn't anything I hadn't seen before and I never progressed beyond high school biology. There were details I didn't remember (after all, how many people who don't go on to work in some biology-related field remember the names of the various phases of cell division), but there wasn't anything that I could not pick up quickly. The book is, of course, limited to the state of the science as it existed in 1960, when it was written, so a couple of nuances are missing, but there is nothing incorrect in the material presented (since our understanding of basic biology has not changed significantly since then - more advanced stuff, sure, for example, since it had not been discovered yet, Asimov misses much about the genetic code, but that doesn't detract from the material he does cover).

Despite this, I found the book very interesting and informative. Not because it provided new information, but because it presented it in an easy to follow manner, and, more importantly to me, organized it and showed it in context. Where the book excels is where it links up the various discoveries and shows how they relate to one another - Asimov is at his best when discussing how Darwin, Mendel, and other giants of the history of biology relate to one another, and linking their disparate discoveries into an overall framework for the reader. Unlike many basic science courses where various elements are treated individually, Asimov tried to show how each discovery built upon the others, and also show where advances in the field were ignored or derided due to personal animosities or political turf wars between those in the field.

In an educational environment where foolishness like "Intelligent Design" is being touted as a valid alternative to be taught alongside actual science, there can never be enough clearly written, concise books that provide actual scientific knowledge in a succinct and easy to follow manner. This book does that, and for that, I recommend it highly.

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